What if?

Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Yemen. Iraq. Oman. Bahrain. Algeria. Morocco. Jordan. What sounds like a list of agency locations across the region is really a country by country trail of the Arab uprisings of 2011. It all started in a small Tunisian town and fueled by the Arab youth’s power to communicate, build momentum and gather information and disseminate rhetoric via the internet and on the street until it became a tumbleweed of a game changer. Often, heads of states have fallen, and in others, change of governments or of those wielding power at ministry levels have been brought on by the people in the squares, on the streets.

It took one frustrated, angry vegetable seller in Tunisia who set him ablaze to usher in the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia – the kick starter. Then, in nation after Arab nation, the youth armed themselves with mobile phones and computers, and brought down the power of the gun toting mighty. The pen vs the sword. And the pen (or mouse) won without fail (even as we’re watching what’s unfolding in Libya).

For the first time, collectively at least, this part of the world has woken up to the power of social and political mobilization via social media. One ‘protester’ from Egypt told me how ‘yet another time America had helped change the goalposts in the Middle East’ this time without flying in troops and tanks. “After all, twitter and facebook are American” he explained. I’ve known Bassem (name changed) for a few years. He has been fiercely anti-American. This time around there was almost a quiet acceptance of a helping hand in the form of technology.

Social media and technology of communicating beyond the print and broadcast media is enabling freedom of speech to levels unprecedented in the region. “People are creating their own channels, most of which are beyond any censorships” observed Fadi Salameh, CEO at MCN and a media guy at heart. “I believe this may change where and how we target these demographics as media planers, down the line when everything has settled” he added.

And one more. With all this grasping of the powers that reside between the tweets and the facebook posts, I wonder (and frankly fear) the Sword of Damocles that the powers that be at these social media HQs will face. How will this freedom of speech, open channel networking, and the absence of censorship or control stand up and be counted when (and not if, is my fear) it’s used by the ‘people’ on the ‘wrong side’? After all, freedom of speech and social media can be radicalized. 140c at a time.


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